Wander the Rainbow World Map

Rome, Open City

April 22nd, 2018 by David Jedeikin
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They say that one who tires of London tires of life, but I think the same can be said for Rome. City boy that I am, I wondered if my travelers three would feel the same way about Rome now as I did then.

On the Red Arrow

With that in mind, we left our Florence accommodations and headed to the one significant portion of our our European rail journeys unaffected by French strikes: the high speed train from Florence to Rome.

Italy frequently gets assailed for being one of Europe’s somewhat less organized countries: orderliness is a rarity, trains are rarely on time… actually, things seem to have improved on that front since my last visit: the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) is Italy’s entrant into the European high-speed realm, and as with comparable such rail travel elsewhere, it’s so smooth and speedy that you arrive almost before you settle in. Jacob and Sam played against us in a mini-chess tournament and creamed both Mathew and me.

Roma Termini left all other European stations we’d seen so far in the dust. It looked to have been remodeled since I was last here and is a massive monument of midcentury grandeur. As I explained to the gang, Italy’s medieval city-states, such as Florence and Pisa, emerged in the Renaissance with some influence and importance. But nothing ever equaled ancient Rome in the Western world until the modern age.

(Family) Historic Fountains

Today Rome remains a good-sized city, with a metro area population a bit larger than Seattle’s or Montreal’s. As with Florence, bits of family past from this city have worked their way into our present. One example of this is a statue of a fountain that sat in my grandmother’s dining room and now graces my Mom’s, the boys’ grandmother’s, dining area. It’s a miniature copy of the Fontana delle Tartarughe, the Turtle Fountain, one of the city’s smaller but still grand historic fountains that were built during the Renaissance at the terminus of some re-activated Roman aqueducts. It’s said that ancient Rome had enough water coming to it as New York City did during the mid-twentieth century; in an age before electricity the fountains were all designed to operate via simple gravity pressure.

We meandered past the ruins of the ancient city and around the former Jewish ghetto and synagogue before coming across this waterwork in an otherwise-unassuming little piazza. A movie crew looked to be setting up for an evening shoot, period picture car and all. It was easy to imagine my glamorous grandparents driving through here headed to some event or another in this lively city.

Lions and Christians and Bus Tours…

Next morning, we headed off from our accommodations in Esquiline Hill — literally the ancient Roman suburbs, today an elegant neighborhood of midrises — to the sight so often associated with this city: the Colosseum. Here again, we managed to brave the crowds, and I again had the sensation from last time I visited this place: it was meant for crowds. Sports fans both, the boys were amazed to see a two-thousand-year-old structure that rivals in scale the ballparks of today. No lions eating anyone for spectacle here anymore, but we Marvel movie fans were tempted to yell out, “we know each other… he’s a friend from work!” from the last Thor film‘s gladiator scene.

Rome’s both big enough to tour by motor vehicle, and dense enough to make an al fresco experience worthwhile. Since we weren’t all of Vespa-riding age a la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, we instead bought tickets to one of the half-dozen of open-top bus tours of the city. It was a glorious sunny day and this proved to be a great way to spot many of the major sights.

We made a brief stop at the Trevi Fountain — yup, grander than the Turtle Fountain but so thronged it was difficult to get near the thing, never mind drop in a lucky coin. Nearby, we visited the shop of a brother of one of my Dad’s old friends. Gloria hung out with me when I was here ten years ago, where we met at some friends’ apartment who’d done up their outdoor terrace as a sukkah, the temporary shelter Jews in warmer climes put up during the fall festival commemorating the Israelites endless wanderings in the desert. This time around, we caught up on details of her life — she’s moved to Tel Aviv, finding it a livelier and less formal scene than Rome — and ours, which she summed up as follows:

“I see many Instagrams of you,” she said, motioning to Mathew, “and the cat!

Sounds about right.

Big Art, Little Country

Next day, fortified by a couple of home-cooked meals care of Mathew, we rose for a mix of culture and sport. I’d booked us in one of those “skip the line” tours of the Vatican, Earth’s smallest nation-state, hoping it would get us in quickly and provide a fun, edifying way to see the place. Well, it did usher us past the throngs queued up outside the city/state’s walls… only to herd us into one of those typically boring tours that put off a generation of kids (mine) to art and history. So we skipped the rest of the tour as well, and meandered through the glories of the Vatican museum before coming upon the peak attraction: the Sistine Chapel.

“Oh yeah, it’s really colorful,” said Jacob, in response to my earlier note about the 1980s restoration of the frescoes that some have accused of looking too much like cartoon animation. Still, the place remains astounding in spite of the crowds gawking at the ceiling. Regardless of how one feels about Roman Catholicism and its impact around the world, they sure got a nice headquarters.

Saturday Sport

For our last evening in Rome, the Fates handed us a nice gift: as sports aficionados, both boys were hankering to catch a game of some sort here in Italy… which, given this nation’s passions meant soccer– ahem football. Looking on the calendar early in the year seemed to indicate this was playoff season, and nothing was scheduled for the week we were there… until a couple weeks ago, when a match popped onto the listings for the Saturday before we were to head home… perfect. Best of all, two of the cities we’d been to were competing that evening: Rome vs. Florence.

Rome being Rome, there was not easy way to get to its Stadio Olimpico, the arena used in the 1960 Olympics and extensively remodeled in the 1990s. A combination of Metro and taxi did the trick. We nearly had a heart-stopping “are they gonna let us in?” moment when they asked for our passports as identification, but they relented and allowed our group of American/Canadians in to get an up-close look at this frenzied pastime.

I made sure to get us seats in the better-viewing-angle seats along the stadiums sides… but not just for the view. The cheaper “Curva” seats, along the stadium’s goalposts, are where superfans of both teams tend to sit… and even though this wasn’t as crazy a game as their matches against Lazio (the cross-town team) or Naples, it was, by our North American reckoning, pretty nuts. Both Sam and Jacob noted that playoffs games with the Montreal Canadiens (“the Habs” as they’re affectionately known) can get pretty intense, but this was on a whole other level. In the Rome fan section, people waved enormous oversized flags and chanted pretty much the entire two hours we were there.

Alas, it didn’t help much: Rome lost the game, and for a moment there when a possible goal of theirs was declared invalid, I thought fans, even in our more sedate section, were about to mutiny.

Nonetheless, it proved a swell outing. We headed home via sardine-can-crowded streetcar and Metro to our short-stay apartment before another long day of flights home.

The score on this tournament of travel: up two more newly-minted world explorers, and some great memories of fair Italia. Up next in this series: our niece Layla in two years.

 

 

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Tuscan Trails

April 21st, 2018 by David Jedeikin
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After Mathew’s and my successful bit of initial travel, it was time for the big adventure: this was to be the third entrant in my “take the kids overseas at age 12” odysseys… and for this one timing and circumstances dictated mixing it up. For one thing, I had two nephews (from two different siblings) around that age with similar tastes and attitudes. Having two kids likewise made Mathew an integral travel companion. And as for destinations, Jacob and Sam suggested a spot near and dear to our family’s heart, having been the place where their granddad, my father, lived and was so strongly influenced by as a teen: Italy.

London Calling

To get there, we hopped a flight on old reliable: British Airways, who by this point have hauled me back and forth across the Atlantic innumerable times over the past decade. In fact, this very flight from Montreal to London — which due to Montreal’s northeasterly position is one of the shortest on the carrier’s North America roster — is the same one that took me and both these kids’ moms to London for the very first time some three decades ago. Although they’re considered a midgrade carrier in the international airline derby of “who’s the best,” their service has always impressed me, especially in comparison to the legacy North American airlines. Both British this go-round and United on our overnighter to Orlando offered same-day upgrades. The British one, however, even only as a bump to Premium Economy, still far outshone United’s offering on practically every level.

After clearing Heathrow’s fiendishly long immigration line, we popped on the Heathrow Express (still the fastest and most economical way to get to Central London, even with four people), dropped our bags at our accommodations, and tooled around town a bit. It was chillier on this outing that it had been the last bunch of times I’ve been to the British capital: like North America’s Northeast, Europe’s had a pretty substantial winter, with sizable snows in London and flooding of the Seine in Paris. All that was double incentive to head northward (and indoors) for a fabulous home-cooked lunch care of our family’s historic friends — the Lightmans. Sydney, patriarch of the clan, turned 94 that week and still seems as crisp and with-it as he was when he first showed us around London thirty years ago. It’s been almost five decades since my twentysomething Mom stayed at their home and was encouraged to call back that man with the funny-sounding name. In all the years of hearing my clan’s origin story I’d never quite connected how much a product of the then-new Jet Age my parents’ union had been; I guess it makes sense that it’s spawned generations of new world explorers, and the ties that connect them, across the globe.

Added bonus: one of the Lightman clan had a black cat whom I saw a few visits ago; this time I got to meet another one, David and Kate’s elderly Freddie, who also seemed impressively spry for his age. Hopefully our Khaleesi back home will age as gracefully.

Pisa Surprise

Next morning we headed southeastward… but not the way we’d expected. I’d initially booked an over-the-top rail journey across Europe, Eurostar-ing it to Paris then to Italy by overnight train, sleeper cabins and all. Alas, the French industrial strikes mucked with our plans and canceled a number of our rail connections. But hey, one good thing about Europe: travel options are abundant. We managed to score pretty good last-minute fares to Tuscany’s largest airport and stay overnight somewhere we’d only planned to do as a side day excursion: Pisa.

Score one for the serendipity of travel. Although I’d heard so-so things about Pisa the town, we quickly grew to love it: glorious Tuscan feel, with eave-roofed orange-hued buildings framing narrow, winding streets overlooking the same River Arno as Florence. We found all the food options we’d been seeking (the boys are big fans of pasta and pizza); I even kicked off an Instagram Gelato Olympiad to see which city and gelateria would offer the best frozen, creamy concoction. Right out of the gate, Pisa made a strong showing at the two spots we visited.

The town’s main attraction is impressive in its own right: originally intended as the city cathedral’s bell tower, the 900-year-old Leaning Tower is a striking, many-arched white structure soaring into the blue Tuscan sky. I didn’t make it here on my big world trip as I’d been mistakenly led to believe that climbing the tower was no longer possible. That was indeed true in the early 2000s, when the tower’s increasing lean was stabilized; now, climbing the off-angle steps is a delight so popular that we had to snag timed tickets for it in advance.

As with so many “touristy” destinations the world over, I always go in asking the question: “Does it still have the magic that drew people here in the first place?” The answer from all four of us was an unqualified “yes.” From the oh-so-obvious photos of us “holding” the tower in forced perspective, to the glorious views of the town and surrounding hills, Pisa’s Tower was definitely worthwhile. The same holds true for other spots in that main cathedral square, all great examples of medieval Tuscan architecture.

Florentine Family Ties

From tranquil Pisa we hopped a local train inland, to Tuscany’s biggest destination and home to our family’s paterfamilias in his younger days: Florence. Although a modest-sized place these days (under 400,000, though with a metro area of 1.5 million, about the size of Salt Lake City), its bustling train station gave us the impression of a much larger place. Once again, however, as travelers in during the busy Spring Break holiday, we encountered crowds the likes of which compared with those at Disney parks.

Nevertheless, we were determined to take a walk down memory lane: we headed for the Ponte Vecchio, visiting Ugo Gherardi’s jewelry shop. Now ten years older than when I saw him last, Ugo himself was there and happy to see us — and especially proud to encounter two of the grandchildren. Here, again, there are connections going back generations, as both Ugo’s grandfather, and my grandfather, the boys’ great granddad, had known and done business together. We bought a few gifts to mark our visit, and got some great views of the famed bridge. We’ve all seen medieval bridges with buildings built on on them, but it was Mathew’s and the boys’ first time actually walking on one.

Nearby lay another bit of family history. My Dad’s family ended up in Italy almost by accident. They were living in Shanghai, China during World War II, and apparently my grandfather had done some secret business with the Italian underground. Consequently, they were given entry visas to Italy and decamped for there in 1947. My grandparents settled in Rome and sent my Dad to school in Florence. He was only a couple years older then than Jacob and Sam were on this trip now, so we could only imagine the vivid, rich experiences he must’ve had in this city as it recovered from the depredations of war. He went to one of those expat schools, Miss Barry’s on the Via Dei Bardi. It’s no longer a school these days but the building still exuded that institutional feel tempered by its Tuscan glory. We could only imagine fourteen-year-old Leon cruising the narrow streets on his moped back in the day.

While Florence remains glorious and is still something of a center in Italian life, one thing became apparent in our time there: with the throngs of tourists clustered at all the big attractions — we couldn’t get near the Cathedral or climb its clock tower, though we did get a good peek at the Medici Chapel in spite of a surly ticket-taker who, in true Italian fashion, spoke only Italian —the place somewhat disturbingly reminded me of my time in Venice a decade ago. I find when places lose their relevance in the present (as Venice has) but remain popular with out-of-town visitors, they start to resemble theme park versions of themselves. Nothing wrong with that — I retain a fondness for the artistry of Renaissance masters and Disney Imagineers alike. But when real-life places lose the hum of the everyday, I find they rob the visitor of a certain authenticity as well. For that reason, even with the family connection and all that glorious art, we found Pisa — a living, working college town in addition to a moderate tourist spot — to be a more enchanting place than Florence.

Plus another detail: in our ongoing Gelato Olympiad, Pisa still managed to nudge out its bigger Tuscan sibling, at least for the places we visited. As we packed that last night in Tuscany, we wondered what we’d be in for at our next and busiest stop.

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Tropics & Traditions

April 4th, 2018 by David Jedeikin
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Although we’d managed some respectable adventures since Mathew and I returned from Europe in mid-2015, both time and finances have been constrained since then by a mammoth home remodel; we’ve been working on our place practically since that time. With that finally in a “done” state, it was time to make good on a pledge that marked our Atlantic travels from three years back: continuing forays with nephews and nieces around their 12th birthdays.

Before that, however, we opted to kick things off with a few add-on excursions. We did a quick overnight in Guerneville, a popular Bay Area weekend spot in Sonoma County astride the Russian River. While Mathew made use of our accommodations’ spa treatments, I opted to visit the redwood forest nearby at Armstrong State Natural Reserve. It made for an appropriate first stop: my Dad loved the redwoods of coastal California, and it was his cosmopolitan, adventurous spirit that I carry with me in my voyages with the family’s next generation. I’m probably not the first to say it, but I could almost feel his presence amid the canopy of ancient trees as sunlight filtered through their mammoth branches.

Next on this multifaceted voyage was a jaunt to America’s southeast. There the world awaited… as well as portions of other, fictional worlds. I’m speaking, of course, of the Walt Disney World resort outside Orlando, Florida. We’d been hankering to check out their Pandora: The World of Avatar attraction at the theme park—though given its size, theme country might be a more accurate moniker. Thanks to Mathew’s diligent Disney planning—especially over this Spring Break holiday period—we made the most of our time there and skipped a number of long lines. Plus it was fun to visit themed variants of Old Europe prior to seeing the real thing.

From tropical Florida we made our way to the Great White North. The nickname seemed accurate this go-round as our plane descended toward Montreal: they’ve had a snowy winter this year as has much of the Northeast, and even in early spring piles of snow were visible around backyards and parks.

The Jewish Passover holiday and the Easter holiday often coincide—one of the only such festivals that do so, thanks to both depending on variants of the lunar calendar. That’s no accident: they say the Last Supper was in fact a Passover seder (a ceremonial meal held the evening of the holiday); and, of course, spring solstice holidays from various faiths stretch back to prehistory. Passover, however, being the commemoration of the whole Exodus/Ten Commandments saga (with or without Charlton Heston) is always a lively deal among Jews, and my family’s no exception. For this year’s outing we headed to my sister Tamara’s house, where various branches of our family tree made for a lively night of singing, eating, and preparing for our big voyage across the Atlantic.

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Saigon to the Straits

October 29th, 2017 by David Jedeikin
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Following our pleasant intro to Vietnam in Nha Trang, we were prepared for the next travel challenge: the country’s largest city, and arguably the headline port of call for the cruise: Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon).

Well, actually, the ship said it was docking in Phu My.

Uhm, where?

Well, as with many European cities (and, as Mathew pointed out, his hometown of Sacramento), the big Asian centers typically lie on rivers just inland from the sea. That’s true of HCMC, which sits on a confluence of waterways that encompass the Mekong Delta. Our ship pulled up at this industrial port and only offered a bus drop off and a pick-up ten hours later—a long day of to and fro.

So it was time for me to again don my independent-traveler hat, and seek out alternative transport to and fro. Naturally, the cruise lines made it seem impossible, insisting that “entrance to the cruise port is at least a 20-minute walk from the ship” (it was more like 7 minutes); and “Ho Chi Minh City is at least 80 miles from [the port city] Phu My” (more like 40 miles); and—of course—“taxis are very limited.” Even though we spied a dozen of these around, we’d already pre-booked what’s often a great option in this part of the world: a car and driver for the day.

Okay, I was a still a bit nervous about it: I’d never before merged my indy-travel and cruise travel styles in a totally new city, let alone one of Asia’s mega-metropolises (HCMC now boasts a population of over 10 million).

Port to City

Luckily, at breakfast on up Deck 11, I spotted it: the entrance plaza where we were to walk to meet our driver. It was on the other side of a sprawling container port, another first for me: I’ve never before seen these giant container cranes up close and personal before; those at the Port of Oakland back home are only visible from a distance. They’re freaking massive; even if they didn’t serve as inspiration for the AT-ATs in the Star Wars films (as has been postulated, and as my shirt in the photo suggests), they’re intimidating enough on their own.

Our driver, Hung, a middle-aged local who spoke a smattering of English, met us in his oh-nice-it’s-roomy Ford hatchback, right where the car company said he’d be. So far, so good. I’d already studied the route extensively, geographic obsessive that I am, and he followed it exactly.

Another detail those various cruise and online guides sadly missed: in stating “there’s nothing between Phu My and central Saigon,” I’d been led to believe we’d see a whole lot of… well, nothing on the hour-plus trip.

Boy, was that an inaccuracy: the four-lane quasi-highway leading from the port to the main east-west highway into the city was lined cheek-by-jowl with shops, eateries, advertising signs… picture a suburban drag back home like El Camino Real or Ventura Boulevard, only with wall-to-wall shops crammed next to each other like the world’s longest continuous strip mall. The odd gorgeously adorned Buddhist temple or bit of woodland or flooded rice paddy offered only brief respite from this mammoth strip of commerce.

Nomads Unite

Eventually, we popped onto the freeway heading toward District 1, the central part of HCMC that locals still refer to as “Saigon.” Thickets of new and under-construction high-rises filled the view. We pulled up, naturally, to Saigon’s tallest building: the Bitexco Financial Tower. But we were really here for something else I enjoy in my travels more than going up tall buildings (though we did that too): a meetup with somebody from back home on their own overseas adventure.

Jake was a co-worker at my last job; his all-remote team made it possible for him to work halfway around the world, just as as Mathew and I had done a couple years back. Although he’s San Francisco born and raised, his family’s from Vietnam and he’s been having a grand old time being a digital nomad.

“I feel like this city’s my second home,” he said, as we looked out at the mammoth sprawl from Bitexco’s observation deck. The building features a helipad—though they’ve had a few issues getting it functional. Still, it looks like something out of an Avengers movie.

Jake’s fluency in Vietnamese facilitated our driver’s piloting to the next stop, something for which Mathew and I have become almost infamous for in our our global treks.

Yes, another cat café

The Saigon variant of this emerging global phenomenon resembles its European or Japanese counterparts: food service in a common space, and resident cats rather than adoptables (as in feline cafés back home). This translated to a broader age mix of creatures (the adoption-based places usually have younger felines)… and an even more more blasé attitude than usual (if that’s indeed possible) from the furry denizens.

Next, a bit of shopping and lunch. Arguably one of the better parts of overseas travel is checking out what clothing shops offer Over There. Sure, many complain about globalization and the presumed sameness of shopping the world over. But look closer: an H&M or Zara in Saigon isn’t the same as one in Chicago or Marseilles. 

As for lunch, Jake corroborated something I observed in prior travels: shopping-mall food courts can—at least in some places—be good. My bowl of Pho was super-flavorful, a nice break from the meals we’d been having on the ship.

Driving through the city on our way back, I beheld it again: as in Kaohsiung and Nha Trang, scootering is the way to get around. I’d heard that Vietnam has roughly one scooter for every adult of driving age, and I believed it. There are even designated lanes for two-wheelers on major boulevards and highways, though that didn’t stop one such roadway from getting jammed up from an obstruction ahead.

We returned to the ship in plenty of time,  leaning out our balconies for a farewell to Vietnam as we sailed out to sea. The lights of Vũng Tàu, the most seaward city on this side of the Mekong Delta, twinkled in the distance. One more day of rest and preparation, and we’d be arriving at our final destination on this Asian journey.

Port of Arrival

“We’re still moving.”

So said Mathew’s Mom as she rapped on our stateroom door the morning our ship was set to dock at its final port. This was actually a bit unusual: cruise ships typically unload passengers the morning of their arrival, and frequently arrive hours beforehand, in the wee hours. But here we were, daylight streaming through our windows, still steaming into the harbor. That’s a plus, I mused as I beheld the gleaming skyline unfolding before us. As with our departure port, I’d been to this place before: equatorial island city-state and Hong Kong doppelgänger: Singapore.

As one of the Asian “economic tigers,” I’d been impressed by Singapore’s glittering skyline and immaculately-restored historic shophouses on my last visit. Well, the city center seems to have doubled in size in the near-decade since I’d been here last. I lost count of the newly built edifices as we rode a taxi from the Marina Bay cruise terminal (itself about as nicely appointed as Hong Kong’s) to our hotel.

The Oasia Hotel itself, meanwhile, looked like something out of a utopian sci-fi tale: shaped a bit like San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower with its tapered top, but with chunks taken out of the building to allow for greenery, ventilation, and rooftop lounges and pools. The entire building is draped with ivy for environmental effect.

“It’s the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at,” Mathew exclaimed, as we relaxed in one of the poolside cabanas beside a long infinity pool. I’ve become something of a swimming fussbudget in my old age, but this spot, perched on the building’s outdoor atrium on the 21st floor, got me to don my trunks and throw down a few laps.

(Inadvertent) Holiday Dinner

As if our outrageous fortune in coming to Hong Kong and Taiwan over national holidays wasn’t enough, we had it happen again here in Singapore: the Hindu festival of Diwali fell the same day our ship docked. Worse, Mathew and I had a hankering for Indian fare and decided to head to Little India for it. Well, it was festive and crowded and crazy… and in spite of having made an online reservation (which never got received) our chosen eatery still had us wait for a few minutes for a table. The dinner we had absolutely made it worthwhile, however: a bit spicier than we were used to, but delectable nonetheless.

Had we been in Singapore for a few days, this holiday might have given us a total charge. Sadly, coming at the end of a long cruise and an even longer holiday, we weren’t much in the mood for crowds and festivities. We attempted to visit the famed Supertree Grove, an attraction that had opened since my last time here, but gave up in the midst of all the throngs and traffic. Instead, we called it an early night in preparation for our almost 24 hours of continuous travel to cross the Pacific and head home.

One final stop on the way back to something I didn’t hit up last time I was here: major Asian airports are renowned for the fabulous amenities. Singapore’s Changi offers something truly unique, however: a butterfly garden. Sitting in Terminal 3 serenely astride the jumbo jets, it definitely makes for a relaxing airport experience.

Two long but comfortable flights later, and we were back, halfway across the world to our pets and our still-under-construction house. Life changes may have altered matters somewhat, but it won’t keep Mathew and me from continuing to wander the global rainbow.

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Slowboat From China

October 15th, 2017 by David Jedeikin
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Part Two of our journey involved traveling across Southeast Asia as I’d never done it before: by sea on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Our ship was set to depart Hong Kong late Sunday evening—a bit different than the standard 5pm sail time for cruises from North America. We piled into two cabs and crossed Hong Kong Island from west to east, taking in that fabulous skyline one last time. The city’s new cruise terminal was located, ironically, at the site of the old Kai Tak airport—a spot I’d never landed at, having first arrived in the city almost a decade after it closed down. Tai Tak was unique in having had one long, narrow runway jutting out into the water astride the high-rises of East Kowloon. Having been one of the first airports to welcome the 747 when it was introduced in the 1970s, one experienced a surreal landing between bunches of tall buildings.

Like much of the city, the cruise terminal was cavernous and new… but that didn’t stop check-in from manifesting the typical craziness we’d experienced on previous cruises. Part of that is expected: cruise ships hold ten times as many passengers as even the largest airliners, and with all of them vacationers, there’s no experience of business-travel efficiency.

This was especially true this go-round given the late departure time. We stood in one line to check in; another to go through security; yet another to clear Hong Kong passport control; another to drop off passports for arrival visa processing; and then a final line to actually climb onto the ship itself. The days of Jack and Fabrizio hopping aboard the Titanic moments before it set sail in the eponymous film are long gone.

Notwithstanding all that, arrival on the ship made it all worthwhile. As an independent-minded traveler, I’m occasionally put off by the highly orchestrated nature of cruising… but the part that’s always done it for me is the majesty and romance of travel by ship. It’s no surprise that so much of science fiction, given the vast cosmic distances, tends to depict space travel more like old time seafaring than like the econobox experience of jet flights. I think so many of us long for the days where much of the adventure of travel was the conveyance itself.

Made in Taiwan

After a full day’s sailing the ship arrived at its first port of call, Kaohsiung in Taiwan. I must confess, aside from knowing about Mathew’s uncle having traveled there decades ago, I knew pretty much… well, nothing about this place. When I hear the word Taiwan I think “island nation run by pre-Communist Chinese government,” and “Taipei, cool big city with one of the world’s tallest buildings.”

Oh, and one other thing: “Manufacturer of a large proportion of the world’s motor scooters, including mine.” (It’s a PGO, branded in the U.S. as the Genuine Buddy; given its accent coloring we’ve taken to calling it “Buddy Blue.”)

The last of these was immediately apparent: Kaohsiung was positively buzzing with scooters of all shapes and sizes, with anywhere from one to four passengers on board. The spectacle of an entire family out for a ride, children and babies literally in tow, remains one of my favorite moments of overseas travel.

For places that I knew next to nothing about, both Kaohsiung and neighboring Tainan impressed us during our brief visit. With populations of 3 million and 2 million, respectively, both cities would be sizable metropolises back home. It always amazes me how much some parts of the world have changed so dramatically in recent years—particularly Asian Tiger economies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Kaohsiung boasts a subway system that’s less than ten years old and already has ridership of 200,000 a day; Taiwan also sports high-speed rail that’s faster than anything in North America; and both cities seemed spotlessly clean and peppered with a mix of newer and older high-rises. If Mathew’s uncle were around today and could come back here, I doubt he’d recognize much of it.

Our bus ferried us to a number of historical spots in Tainan’s city core. Our amiable, accented guide explained that the island’s had a diverse history, with portions of it having been run by the Dutch, the Japanese (even well before World War II), and the mainland Chinese before the 1949 Revolution.

“We still think Taiwan different from China,” he emphasized. Relations between the two nations, even with China’s greater free-market openness, remain prickly.

Shrines and Towers and Pagodas… oh my!

Our first stop was Chikhan Tower, once a colonial Dutch outpost, now a very fetching temple-like structure with well-stocked Koi pond. Given our tremendous fortune in arriving at places over holidays… well, wouldn’t you know it, this day was Taiwan’s National Day. Shops were mostly closed, and a melodious parade wound down the street across from the Tower. Oh, and the weather: this tropical part of Taiwan normally sees a big cooling off in the fall… but not this fall. We arrived to record high temperatures and humidity, even more so than in Hong Kong. Suffice it to say the air-conditioned bus made for a nice sanctuary.

Next up, Tainan Confucian Temple, featuring a tri-shaped pagoda, some rather distinctive looking squirrels (to North American eyes, anyway), and carved dragons atop a swallowtail roof. Our last stop, Koxinga Shrine, had that telltale Disney-esque look of recent construction: as with neighboring Japan, many of Taiwan’s historic structures are made of wood, necessitating near-complete rebuilding every century or so. This spot in particular commemorates a military leader who held significant territories in both Taiwan and the mainland in the 1600s.

Cruise Turbulence

Back on board, the ship’s usual panoply of amusements awaited us… well, that is, until we bumped up against a trend Mathew and his family have been noticing in their two decades of cruising: as vessels have gotten bigger and splashier, service hasn’t quite kept up on all ships. Cruise lines constantly upsell packages for beverages, for high-speed internet access, and for other amenities. In spite of their hefty fees, however, when things don’t work out, there’s typically no compensation for any inconvenience caused. The new Voom high-speed internet, touted in some reviews as reliable high-speed browsing onboard, was spotty—offering at best entry-level early-2000s DSL speeds. Pricey beverage packages likewise offer no guarantee of availability. Food, meanwhile, which in Mathew and his family’s memory pretty top-shelf even on midrange cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, nowadays doesn’t measure up to dining options you might find in mid-range restaurants back home. Even the ship’s Johnny Rockets, an outpost of the popular burger franchise, didn’t compare to its onshore counterparts—or even to the same such spot we dined at on this ship’s sister vessel over three years ago. Oh, and the air conditioning in our cabin wasn’t operating correctly when we boarded, necessitating a wait for a service call. Ugh.

Later that night, we tried to shake off our frustrations with some dancing and karaoke. Mathew sang a Britney Spears tune, natch; I did a Beatles melody. But not long after hitting the sheets, Mathew awoke… feeling like hell. After a full day of misery, we decided to visit the ship’s medical center. It had just closed, prompting an “oh shit” moment: is this gonna be another nightmare? Happily not: the ship’s on-call nurse came out immediately and assessed Mathew’s symptoms. A shot of Odasentron (a.k.a. Zofran) and some anti-nausea pills, and he was feeling a lot better in short order. Having had these identical symptoms before even without any out-of-the-ordinary foods, we suspect he may suffer from abdominal migraines, which are analogous to the cranial migraines I know all too well. Ah, the perils of getting on in years.

In spite of that diagnosis (which likely ruled out food poisoning), the ship wasn’t taking any chances: per their protocol, they confined Mathew to our cabin until the following evening. Good thing these were quieter days at sea. One plus: the ship’s staff offered up free movies and room service to keep Mathew fed and occupied. Kudos to them there.

Good Morning Vietnam!

With Mathew back in action, we went ashore at our next port: Nha Trang, our first on this cruise’s marquee destination country.

I so wanted to go to Vietnam on my big world trip, but time and timing didn’t quite work out. I still got a good sense of that portion of Asia from travels in Thailand and Cambodia… but Vietnam has especially intrigued me for two reasons: one, the obvious, is its checkered history with the United States (and colonial powers before it) as a country that fought hard for its independence and unification; two, it’s reputed to have really come into its own over the past couple decades. As part of my research for Wander the Rainbow I read the (really excellent) memoir Catfish and Mandala by Bay Area resident Andrew X. Pham… but it was set over twenty years ago, and depicted the country as something of a challenge for the overseas visitor.

As our ship sailed into Nha Trang Bay, I beheld a theme park—yup, Vietnam’s got one too, though not of the Disney variety. Vinpearl, a resort complex, sits on Hòn Tre island, just across the bay from the city proper.

Arrival in this port offered me another new travel experience: shuttling to the mainland via tender. Nha Trang doesn’t have a full-size port, so cruise ships must moor offshore and transfer passengers via smaller boats. These are often rented from the port itself, but in this instance we were taken in on the ship’s lifeboats. These have come a long, long, long way from the rickety wooden vessels of the Titanic days: they’re neutrally buoyant, 150-person motorized mini-ships with rows of seating front to back. As we stepped ashore, a chatty, fortysomething guide reminiscent of our fellow in Taiwan ushered us onto a bus, and we rolled into town.

If I thought Kaohsiung, Taiwan sported an impressive array of scooters, it had nothing on this place: it seemed the whole city was on two wheels; cars and buses were the minority. And though Nha Trang’s metro area—itself an amalgamation of several ancient villages—numbers in the half-million range, traffic here made it feel like a much bigger city: loud, chaotic, horns honking every few seconds. A native-born Montrealer, I’m occasionally frustrated by too many unhurried, oft inconsiderate vehicles and pedestrians in California, who often traverse the road unawares, fully expecting—nay, demanding—vehicles to stop for them like Moses parting the sea; traffic in Nha Trang almost made me feel more at home than my current home.

Temples and Pagodas, Redux

Our tour started out with some historic spots… something you don’t see too often in beach towns back home. We began at Long Sơn Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine with adjoining big white Buddha statue atop a small hill. Yup, yet another Big Buddha following Po Lin in Hong Kong. We had to don robes and sarongs to enter the place, something Mathew had never done before, and, I’d say, confidently rocked as a look.

Next spot reminded us that, modern resorts notwithstanding, we’re in a part of the world that’s been settled for millennia: the Po Nagar Hindu temple, dating back to the 700s AD, built by the Champa empire that ruled what is now Vietnam for over 1500 years. Po Nagar faintly reminded me of Angkor over in Cambodia, though the structures here are built almost entirely of low-slung bricks. The buildings and carvings remain, while weathered and faded, as exquisite as anything I’d seen from Rome or Angkor in my past voyages. Vendors out front peddling prickly, odiferous durian and jackfruit added to the effect.

“No mortar!” Our guide exclaimed, noting the unique building processes used to lay the bricks. As a Hindu spot, altars to the usual deities (or their Vietnam variations) were present: Shiva, Durga, and, of course, my favorite, the elephant obstacle-remover Ganesh.

Shop to Beach

A sampling of sights made us hanker for some shopping, and that’s just what this tour served up next. We headed to the local city market, housed in a couple of gritty structures that gave us more of a local flavor. The fakes here were actually of better quality than those in the Hong Kong night markets, and we enjoyed picking up a few souvenirs and doing a bit of light haggling—far less stressful here than it had been for me in India or Egypt.

Nha Trang became something of a resort town back in the Soviet Communist days, and Russian tourists still make up a significant proportion of its visitors; we spotted almost as many signs in Russian as we did in English. Our next stop took us to an open-air eatery along the town’s main beachfront road, Trần Phú Avenue. As with when I arrived in Bangkok and wondered, “is this Asia or Los Angeles?” Nah Trang’s main beachfront drag almost felt like Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, or Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica: a broad boulevard with glorious sandy treelined beach on one side, and clusters of high-rise hotels and apartments on the other. Travel guides may say “this is not a westernized resort town,” but don’t believe them: we spotted a Sheraton, an Inter-Continental, and scores of other local chains both on and off the main strip.

For me, however, the greatest surprise was gastronomic: we made our short stop at a seafront restaurant for coconut water served out of an actual coconut. Those who know me may recall my profound dislike, nay, utterly irrational hatred of the flavors of the tropical fruit. The smell of macaroons is enough to make me retch. I’d even tried some coconut water back in Mexico but couldn’t get over that aroma. Even Malibu Rum makes me cringe.

Well… color me surprised, because the ultra-fresh coconut—Mathew’s Mom swears it’s the freshest she’s ever had—actually met with my approval. I sipped it, savored the sweet essence, and, dare I say it, actually liked it. Vietnam might make a coconut convert of me yet (though I doubt I’ll ever find a stale macaroon desirable).

Past and Future

I’d read in Vietnam travel guides not to mention the war, as Basil Fawlty might have put it. Nonetheless, our amiable guide had no trouble discussing those years.

“For first ten years after the war, north and south hate each other!” He exclaimed. “But now, we are friends, and we look to build a future Vietnam together.” He emphasized how the Vietnamese pride themselves on their friendliness. Although the country is nominally Communist, the presence of all those hotels and resorts suggests, like mainland China, that they’re a lot less hung up on ideology. As a final touch, our guide sang us a song, a lyrical little ditty about Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam. He even got a bunch of us to sing the chorus. The sight of Western tourists singing “Ho Chi Minh / Viet NAM!” was definitely one to remember.

With a fond farewell, we boarded a tender back to the mothership, setting sail for more ports on this coastal nation and beyond.

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Return of the Jedi Kin

October 10th, 2017 by David Jedeikin
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HongKongSkylineFromHotelPrisma

I begin this entry at the rather fabulous 28th floor lounge of the Hotel Jen in Hong Kong. It’s become our favorite spot to watch the city light up at night.

Two years have gone by since this blog’s gone quiet and our cycle of globetrotting went on pause. Not gonna lie: it’s been a rollercoaster twenty-nine months. I’m officially a “we” now, Mathew and I having tied the knot late in 2015.  We’re also homeowners, engaged in a cycle of remodeling that never seems to end. I’ve changed jobs twice; Mathew’s employment circumstances are different as well. About the only constant in our lives has been our two furry companions, who sadly are not able to accompany us on big overseas travels (much as we wish they could).

But still, the world beckons, along with its capacity to bring perspective to the hurly-burly of life back home. And so, when Mathew’s Dad stumbled upon a novel way to get from Hong Kong to Singapore by way of stops in Vietnam—with super-competitive airfares across the Pacific—we positively jumped at the chance.

Asia New and Renewed

SFOCathay777PrismaArriving at SFO on Sunday evening, we beheld our large, long plane readying for the transoceanic journey amid a panoply of others. The past few years have seen the big overseas carriers offer up a fourth class of service: Premium Economy, a class category that I’d say is well worth the upgrade. Straddling the divide between no-frills Coach and fabulous (but pricey) Business, Premium Economy offers many of the same comforts as, say, Business used to offer decades ago: a bigger recliner seat and moderately enhanced service. I’ve gotten better at sleeping on planes and on this thirteen hour flight I managed to sleep for almost half of it. Even Mathew, who never slumbers on flights, nodded off for about three hours.

In his case, his anticipation was justified: not only was this his longest-ever flight to date, it was also his first-ever time on this side of the globe.

“I’ve never been anywhere non-Western,” he noted.

As we looked out at the lush, craggy peaks of greater Hong Kong through our airplane windows, we were most curious to see what the city would offer. I was especially curious, since I’d spent several days in the city before and found it, coming on the heels of other trans-Asian travel, to be a bit anticlimactic. As I remarked back then, dizzying skyline notwithstanding, the city’s not all that architecturally inspiring.

HarbourViewSay one thing about the place, it’s got public transit figured out. Since we arrived in the morning and were determined to ward off jet lag, we piled onto the MTR, Hong Kong’s uber-efficient subway system. Having begun operations in the late 1970s, the system boasts eight lines and ridership in the millions. I sometimes feel my plaints were a bit harsh, in Wander the Rainbow, about public transit in America’s ostensibly “transit-first” cities like our hometown, San Francisco… until I come to places like Hong Kong and wonder: why can’t we do this?

We got off the train, meandered down the walkways of Central to the waterfront and clambered onto the legendary Star Ferry. It’s a quick ride across the harbor (ahem, harbour) to Kowloon, and the trip was as splendid as I remembered it from years back: a glorious, breezy crossing, with that iconic, intense panoply of skyscrapers on either side. Hong Kong boasts the most high rises of any city on Earth, almost twice as many as the next entrant in the field, New York. And the city hasn’t rested on its laurels since I was last here in 2009: the International Commerce Centre, at 108 stories on the Kowloon side, was just a construction site back then.

TSTParkTaiChiA big, bustling city like this offers much to visitor and resident alike… but like so many world cities, the place tends to start and end late. Consequently, there wasn’t much open on the shopping streets and malls of Tsim Sha Tsui in the earlier morning; we spent a bunch of time wandering a local park as we waited for things to open up. Still, even that random urban green space evoked the feeling that so often hits me on arrival in a new place: At last, I’m elsewhere. The cliché “all your troubles melt away” rang true as we beheld a ramble of elderly locals practicing Tai Chi amid a scattering of modern sculptures.

Peak Time

One plus of staying on the move that first day: in spite of the nine hour time difference from San Francisco (fifteen if you count the other way), we did keep jet lag to a minimum and awoke the next morning ready to hit the town. Mathew’s parents, who hadn’t been here before, opted for some more organized tours, while we hopped back on the MTR and headed back to Central for the ultimate, iconic vantage point of the city from the top of Victoria Peak.

MePeakTramSkyline2My Hong Kong curse, I mused, as we came upon the long, long, long, long line for the Peak Tram. Last time I was here was over Lunar New Year, and the city was mobbed like Manhattan at Christmastime. Well, wouldn’t you know it, this week is again a holiday, both in Hong Kong and mainland China: Mid-Autumn Festival on October 4 and Mainland China’s National Day on October 1.

Fortunately, one of the city’s comfy (and remarkably inexpensive) taxicabs was on hand to whisk us to the top of the Peak by road. It’s a longer, winding route along the backside of the mountain, but that proved to be a plus as it granted us glorious views of the sleepier side of the territory, facing the South China Sea. Though even here, forests of slender high-rises could be seen climbing steep green hillsides. I found my prior grumbling about architecture less relevant, as I began to appreciate how the territory manages to house so many people with so little buildable land while still retaining its natural splendor.

Zip A Dee Doo Dah

DisneyTrainWindowI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my husband is a bit of a Disney-aholic. No trouble for me, as I’ve always appreciated the studio’s artistry, though in my prior travels across the globe I tended to focus on attractions unlike those back home. But with Hong Kong Disneyland having expanded significantly since its opening in 2005, and with Disney incorporating elements of Jedi-dom into the parks since their acquisition of Lucasfilm (hint: I may be a bit of a Star Wars nut myself), we decided to give the place a try. We were a bit trepidatious, to be sure, since our experience at Disneyland Paris in 2015 was kinda so-so: the place felt worn out and unmaintained, almost as if the French took the attitude of “oh, all right, you can have your damn theme park.”

DisneyMysticManorExtAny concerns we had evaporated almost immediately on our arrival, For starters, our arrival: not only is there direct MTR service to the park via a purpose-built rail line… the trains themselves are adorned with Disneyana inside and Mickey Mouse-shaped windows looking out. Given that a similar Disney park in Tokyo was the first such park to open outside of the United States, and given that there’s yet another such park that recently opened in Shanghai, it’s safe to say my thesis about Asian cultures embracing the Disney vibe is intact. For me, this is one of the better parts of globalization, as cultures integrate, adopt and make their own the ways of other lands. Consider sushi and Korean BBQ eateries back home.

While Hong Kong Disney is a smaller park, to be sure, it’s easily as spotless and well maintained as its counterparts back home. Best of all, many of its attractions have been tweaked and modified for the local landscape while retaining their original vibe. Best example: Mystic Manor, a variation on the Haunted Mansion with crazy trackless vehicles that incorporates Southeast Asian elements in its spookiness.

Back to the Past

HistoryMuseumExtMathew had some work commitments to take care of the next day, so I did some solo exploring and hit up a spot a stone’s throw from the accommodations I’d stayed at nine years ago—making me wonder how did I miss this—the Hong Kong Museum of History.

I don’t have limitless appetite for museums, but if they’re about a locale’s history and answer that ever-interesting “how did it get that way?” question, then sign me up. This entrant is practically the Central Casting example of how to do a city history museum: cavernous and comprehensive, tracing Hong Kong’s history from the geologic epochs that formed its craggy peaks (yes, they are volcanic in origin) to the two decades following the handover from Great Britain in 1997 (the former colony has taken its place as its own pseudo-city/state with its own identity). It sports a good bit of detail on wartime Japanese occupation as well, which resonated strongly with me as my father’s family was under similar circumstances a few hundred miles to the north, in Shanghai.

NightMarketSignageThe museum also answered the question that’s been nagging me ever since my grumbling about the city’s relative lack of period architecture: I knew that it had to do with the massive refugee influx from the People’s Republic during the harshest days of the Communist Revolution… but what I didn’t know is that a huge proportion of the city sits on reclaimed land. To an even greater extent than coastal California, buildable turf is super-scarce in Hong Kong. And there’s a social justice component to those high-rises as well that I likely didn’t appreciate during those pre-Occupy Wall Street days: in spite of sky-high property prices for its deluxe homes and apartments, Hong Kong also boasts a robust and extensive subsidized housing scheme that makes the place that much more affordable to a vast middle class. Coupled with high costs of private car ownership and extensive, cheap, reliable public transit, there’s a lot America—with its querulous NIMBYs and free-market-at-all-costs fundamentalists—could learn from this little territory perched on the Pearl River delta.

Above It All

NgongPingBigBuddhaSilhCUThe following afternoon, we made up for something I failed to see on my last sojourn: The Ngong Ping gondola to the Big Buddha at the monastery at Po Lin.

In 2009 I tried braving the lines and gave up after an hour of waiting with no end in sight. This time, we bought timed tickets… though that still didn’t stop us from queuing a spell to board the sweeping gondola ride. I must say, it was worth the nine-year and 25-minute wait! The cable cars soar astride the airport where we’d landed the other day. The cableway then makes a right turn, crosses a waterway, then climbs the steep, forested hillsides up to the monastery and adjoining (admittedly touristy) village. Still, this is one of those tourist spots that I think is a total must-do: the little village has its charms (and gift shops) and the monastery and Big Buddha are awe-inspiring at this spot up in the mountains. Oh, and my pop-culture hubbie had his reasons as well for visiting the place: the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills gave the place a spin a little while back.

NgongPingGondolaView3We had most of a day remaining before heading out from the city… just enough to do something that’s in its own way very Hong Kong: a viewing of the new Blade Runner sequel to the 1982 film. Although set in the near-ish future in Los Angeles, both the original film and its sequel owe much of their conceptual inspiration to the Hong Kong skyline—right down to the strong Asian influence in advertising signage and local fictional patois of its future citizenry. It’s not a perfect film, but it does a great job of rendering what a dystopian urban jungle might look like if things in our real world don’t work out so well.

Fortunately, for us, Hong Kong offered none of that: though the heat was a bit oppressive, the city’s efficient management of so many of the issues that bedevil big metropolises—transit, housing, crowds, tourism, nature preserves—made for a splendid sojourn here while we prepared for the next phase of our journey.

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Lullaby of Europe

May 17th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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AlbufeiraBldgWhiteA European odyssey of this scale deserved a languid, multi-destination farewell, and that’s just what we planned to give it.

It began last Saturday morning, when we bade a bittersweet farewell to our home-away-from-home in Albufeira; gonna miss that view, I mused, gazing out at the ocean one last time.

A comfortable ride up north brought us to the nation’s capital, Lisbon; two short metro rides brought us to arguably one of the most fabulous (and reasonable) accommodations in all my years traveling the globe: an ultra-modern, eco-style wood-and-stone remodel of a classic Lisbon building straddling one of the city’s many hills; a fabulous (and equally reasonable) lounge, Mediterranean restaurant, and gym/spa rounded out the package. Having experienced something similar earlier in the year in Istanbul, I can safely say that affordable-yet-hip cities on Europe’s periphery are the place to go for great value and an sophisticated, urban vibe.

LisbonBaixaShoppingStreetThat was further confirmed for us on our meanderings through the city: we strode down the super-broad Avenida de la Liberdade down toward the city’s historic core, Baixa. Although obviously a far older place, Lisbon shares a thing or two with San Francisco: built around numerous hills, for one; and having experienced a mammoth earthquake – in Lisbon’s case, in 1755. This old city core is, in fact, not that old, having been rebuilt after that era. However, having been an imperial maritime power, this city – a mid-sized place comparable in population to Vienna or San Diego – holds a grandeur evident in its statuary, its broad city squares, and its glorious buildings.

LisbonHillyStreetInstaLater that evening, in search of a vegetarian meal, we wandered (literally) over hill and dale, climbing and descending the city’s steep byways and stairways. It was a beautiful evening, coloring the multi-hued tile façades with orange tint. As with other southern European cities, Lisbon’s got its share of crumbling edifices and splashes of graffiti; I found the effect enchanting, however, like a faded yet still vital old fairyland.

Next day I wandered the nearby Parque Eduardo VII, a green space cresting the hill at the end of Avenida de la Liberdade. Emerging relaxed from a stellar (and, again, reasonably-priced) massage at the hotel spa, Mathew joined me as we headed across town to see more sights in Belém, the city’s historic seaport district.

LisbonAvenideObeliskTukTukOr so we thought: the tram to Belém was packed, so we opted for a ride in one of the city’s tourist tuk-tuks. Yep, they’ve got them here as well, just as they do in India and Thailand. Our driver, however, was a young lady who spoke a near-perfect English and was thrilled to hear we were from San Francisco: she’s going to study there in the fall. As we passed under the suspension bridge across the River Tagus riding down the broad waterfront boulevard, I couldn’t help but think: lady, you’re gonna feel right at home.

Belém played a big role in Portugal’s maritime exploits, with a number of the Portuguese explorers (De Gama, Magellan) departing from these shores. A monument by the sea commemorates this event (nothing on the mass depredations it caused the indigenous peoples of the Americas, alas). Nearby is a sea fort, Belém Tower, built in the high Gothic style one normally associates with more northerly European cities. Even more impressive was the Jerónimos Monastery, with the requisite awe-inspiring pillars, vaulted ceilings, and other carvings so prominent in the Great European City Who’s Got The Biggest Church Contest I feel must have existed in back in the day.

MeBelemCoachMuseum1After that, an unusual but for me fascinating attraction: the National Coach Museum, displaying a range of grand, ceremonial conveyances from the age before autos. The museum is housed in a glorious but faded old edifice; a new building, all modern and glass and concrete, is nearing completion across the way. While no doubt the new digs will be nice, I wonder if it’ll lose something in moving to so different a venue.

After that, down to business. The business, that is, of finding an inexpensive bag to haul all that additional stuff we’d bought (or were going to buy) back home. Mathew, uncharacteristically, had traveled fairly light on the way over, planning to make some clothing (and footwear, his ongoing obsession) purchases on this trip. We’d already acquired a cheap rollaboard at one of the discount Asian shops around Albufeira (in our case, the curiously named “Chinese Shop Good”)… only to have it literally fall apart after a couple of train rides. We seemed to find one of marginally better quality at one of the tourist shops in Lisbon, but only time would tell if this bag would stand the test.

MathewChineseShopGoodMeanwhile, TAP, the Portuguese airline, was coming off a pilots strike that left us wondering if we were going to get off the ground at all. Fortunately we did, and a few hours later were waiting with our bags (the new cheap one’s wheels already showing signs of wear) at the airport train station in Dusseldorf for a couple of German Regional Express trains to the town of Bad Honnef.

Uhm, where?

As I’d mentioned, Mathew is something of a shoe aficionado; his taste of late runs to offbeat, colorful variations of Birkenstock sandals and clogs. So when he learned that the two-century-old German footwear manufacturer had an outlet shop not too far from where our flight home was to depart… well, that was all the incentive I needed to plan a little sojourn.

Our train rolled by the Rhine, passing the hilltop of Drachenfels bearing a ruined castle. This part of Western Germany held sway over the Romantic poets during their period of Rhine Romanticism, and it wasn’t hard to see why: broadleaf forests, rolling hills, and the lazy river made clear we’d left Mediterranean Europe behind for the moodier, temperate climes up north. However, unlike our Paris trek a couple weeks back, this time a warm spell was gripping the Continent, and the humid sunshine felt rather like summer in New England. We dropped our bags at the hotel in the middle of the picturesque little town center, and hopped in a cab to a nondescript building in an equally nondescript industrial park at the edge of town to arrive at Shoe Mecca.

MathewBirkenstockOutlet4The shop definitely delivered: Mathew scored half a dozen pairs, and even I purchased a semi-casual pair of more standard footwear. We hoofed it back to the hotel in the unseasonable heat – only to discover that our accommodations had no air conditioning, fan, or any means of moving air around the room at all. Fortunately, it cooled off as we headed into the town center for a great meal at an Italian eatery attended to by a warm, friendly Indonesian lady. She was a nice contrast, as we’d already begun to notice the curt, German “take it or leave it attitude” in some spots (the checkout lady at the supermarket refusing to take our non-European cards, even those bearing the all-important EMV chip, was one example).

Next morning, on the move again: another regional train back to Cologne, then a quick ride on the German high-speed ICE. With wi-fi, digital readouts at every seat indicating the passenger’s destination, and LED-lit bathrooms, it was clear this was the nicest high-speed train we’d taken in Europe so far. Arriving at Frankfurt’s cavernous Hauptbahnhof, we settled in at our design-y hotel nearby – dodging the city’s somewhat dodgy red-light district on the other side of the station – for our final day of remote work in Europe.

MathewCologneHauptbahnhofWalkI’d transited through Frankfurt once in my big world trip, and it left something of an impression on me – not entirely positive. On my way to the airport, I’d inadvertently popped into the small section of an S-Bahn train that was designated (though not terribly well marked) first class – and got a Germanic ass-chewing from some uniformed fare inspectors.

This time I knew to watch for that – but what I hadn’t counted on was our supermarket experience in Bad Honnef to metastasize as we sought to purchase tickets to get to the airport. First off, none of the fare machines accepted any of our credit or debit cards – even those that matched the “chip and PIN” spec we knew was the norm here. Then none of the ATMs took any of our bank cards – save one of Mathew’s, thank heavens. Then the fare machines refused to accept cash until we inserted exact change. Glad we came early, I mused.

The fun continued at the airport: after a smooth checkin, we stood in the near-empty security line; knowing how much gear and luggage we both had, I pulled out three of those plastic bins used for electronics and personal effects.

“AY-YAY YAY! VUN BY VUN!” barked the lady overseeing our security lane. Apparently, grabbing more than a single bin at a time ist verboten in these parts, even with nobody ahead in line. Really?

FliteHomeCanadianRockies2Fortunately, the flight home, although lengthy, was stellar: the upgrade fairy gifted us some extra-comfortable seats and some really killer on-board service. We drifted off to sleep for a spell, memories of Europe — its grandeur, as well as its foibles and faults — washing over us like a lullaby. Looking out over the Rockies as we neared the West Coast, I realized this lengthy time away was tougher for me than it had been in past explorations — what with a home, a job, two pets and a partner (Mathew had been home for the first part of these travels) now in the mix. Given that, will we be getting back in the travel saddle again anytime soon?

Only time will tell, but if past travel adaptations to new life circumstances are any indication… we’ll find a way.

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Downs and Ups in London and Paris

May 6th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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MathewQuintaDoFrancesWineryExtPart of our plan on this long-haul, work-play adventure was to use our beach spot in Portugal as home base and take shorter journeys elsewhere. Having done our mega-train journey the weekend of our arrival, we opted to stick closer to home the next weekend and checked out the Algarve’s lesser known offerings: while the region has been growing grapes for eons, its focus on tourism has meant it’s only recently returned to winemaking. Perfect for we Californians accustomed to fending off the hordes at Napa and Sonoma; a half-hour drive from Albufeira and we were rewarded with a lovely, uncrowded winery in the hills overlooking a river valley. I can only assume that as more visitors discover this region’s vineyards, this activity will grow in popularity as it has in so many spots worldwide.

The next week saw us get back in the travel saddle once more: a van ride to Faro Airport for a morning flight to London Gatwick. Given the time and timing of the flight, it felt a bit like those weekly early-morning trips from Chicago to Boston I used to take in my past life as an out-of-town contractor. Mathew settled in at his company’s office in the West End, and I hoofed it to our nearby hotel to get a day’s work done.

RegentStreetNite2As one of the world’s most expensive cities, London always poses an issue to flashpacker types looking to travel with a bit of comfort while still on a budget. We opted to pay a little extra for a branch of one of the big chain hotels, figuring that would ensure us reliable wi-fi and a few other amenities.

Well, that was a mistake: the place had some of the worst Internet I’ve ever encountered. Coupled with a tiny, uncomfortable bed that could charitably be called a “double” led to poor sleep and stresses for us both. We ground away at our respective jobs wondering, was this side trip a mistake?

Fortunately, our second evening offered a bright spot: as big movie buffs (and with Mathew now working in a field that sees a need to keep abreast of trends) we learned that the new Avengers film was showing in the UK even before its release in North America — and on the biggest IMAX screen in the country to boot. Although our last-minute seats were less than optimal, both the film (written and directed by one of my faves, Joss Whedon) and the venue richly delivered, and made for a nice cap-off to our short stay in the city.

MathewEurostarNext morning, a familiar pattern for me leaving the UK: a Tube ride to St. Pancras and a high-speed Eurostar to the Continent. Only this time, the destination was a bit different: instead of heading into one of the train line’s destination cities, this conveyance swung east, dropping us off at Marne-la-Vallée, a suburb outside Paris and the home of Europe’s only Disneyland park.

I know, I know. I’ve taken pains to avoid this place in favor of the indigenous cultural treasures to be found in the region. But having been to the French capital some four times in seven years, and with a partner who’s an even bigger Disney nut then I, we figured it was time to give the place its due. Plus, with the weather improving in London since our rainy arrival, I was anticipating some of that magical Paris sunshine I’d come to expect when it’s almost nice in Britain. As we emerged out of the Channel tunnel, rounded Lille and began the race toward Paris, shafts of sunlight pouring through lazy clouds boded well for the weekend.

MathewDisneyParisCastle2So much for that, I mused an hour or so later, as clouds thickened and we arrived under cover of misty drizzle. Not only that, it was cold. Coldest it had ever been for me in the Paris region in my four visits here earlier in the spring and later in the fall. When Disneyland Paris (then called Euro Disney) opened in 1992, this was a central issue the company’s Imagineers had to contend with: unlike Mediterranean Anaheim and subtropical Orlando, the climate here can be frigid and damp even in the months straddling summer. We were curious, if a bit annoyed, to see how Disney In The Rain was going to play out.

Fortunately, the drizzle was mostly light as we began to familiarize ourselves with this new-yet-familiar park: the marquee section of each of these Disney creations models itself on the original Disneyland in California: a turn-of-the-twentieth-century-styled “Main Street” culminating in a mythic castle that serves as hub for multiple themed “lands.” Here the Imagineering was on point as always, and the artistry, attention to detail, and methodical landscaping captivated me as it always does.

DisneyParisSwissWineMenuAs for the charges of “cultural imperialism,” leveled at the park when it opened in the 1990s? Well, consider that many of the stories and places depicted in Disney lore emanate from European source material. Heck, as I’d noted in my round-the-world journeys, the man himself was inspired by French hill towns like Èze, in the south, and by amusement parks such as Tivoli up in the Scandinavian north. Given that, and with a healthy blend of français mingled into the Disney mix, I found this park works just fine in the European heartland. Nice plus: wine with dinner at the Blue Lagoon Restaurant overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Less captivating were some other details of an American outpost thousands of miles from home: although Disney parks pride themselves on their efficiency, order, and enthusiasm of their staff, here we found all three a bit flagging. Park employees – ehrm, “cast members” – seemed less than cheery or efficient. Lines for rides were sometimes chaotic. More than a few attractions seemed closed. Heck, we even saw a woman letting her kid urinate off the side of a particularly lengthy outdoor line – I mean, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go, but such conduct would be unimaginable at one of the parks back home.

WaltDisneyStudiosUrsulaConceptsStill, the place enchanted, as we’d hoped, as we enjoyed a break in the rain the next morning and hopped over to the neighboring Walt Disney Studios park and enjoyed seeing Hollywood refracted through French eyes. I even learned a bit more about Disney animation concepts for some favorite movies in the place’s Animagique pavilion.

Our flight back to Portugal wasn’t set to leave until Sunday afternoon, so with a couple hours to kill we headed into central Paris to return to a different themed attraction near and dear to my Crazy Cat Lady heart: the city’s feline-oriented café. I’d been to this one with my nephew Jackson a year ago, and to its London counterpart with niece Lola last month… but all these weeks away from our furry companions back home left us jonesing for more felines with our brunch a la Parisienne. Happily, the place eminently delivered on both counts, with stellar food and a passel of cats curling around curious humans or existentially staring out into the Paris streetscape.

MeCafeDesChats2The voyage south, meanwhile, was a bit of a down to the previous up: our flight northward was on efficient easyJet, but our journey home was on another discount European carrier, Transavia. While I’ve noted Europe’s embrace of the low-fare model in the past, this experience was a reminder that, well, not all budget airlines are created equal. Some have gone the route of offering more comforts for a fee (airberlin, or the aforementioned easyJet)… while others stick with the “cattle car” model (Ryanair, of course, and, it seems, Transavia as well). Check-in took forever; the plane was packed to the gills with loud, loutish tourists; seating was cramped and offered little escape. We were happy to see our both luggage and our ride back to Albufeira arrive swiftly, and to return to our home-away-from-home after this fun yet occasionally up-and-down vacation from our vacation.

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Trans Europe Express

April 21st, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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Tulips2Spring Break presents an interesting conundrum for one trying to time travels around school holidays: what if the weeks off overlap? Such was the case with my niece Lola and Mathew’s friend Jasmin, who’s teaching school in Cairo (we also met her last April in Malta). This year, both Jasmin’s and Lola’s school vacas were on adjacent weeks — and I was determined to both conclude my Lola travels and meet up with my beau and his pal at their destination of choice this year: Amsterdam.

But… that wasn’t it: Mathew and I had also pledged to take a grand rail journey across Europe to our longer-stay destination in the Algarve, in southern Portugal. I’d scoured rail websites for months before this, and plans were set in motion.

Suffice it to say it was going to be an interesting week.

BAFlightMapIt all began last Tuesday: two Paris Metro rides, one Eurostar trip back to London, a Tube to the Heathrow Express, then a flight to Montreal on a jam-packed plane to return Lola safely to her family. All in all, her trip seemed as much a hit for her as it was for cousin Jackson a year ago; next day in school, a gaggle of classmates surrounded her and pumped her for details of her voyage. For me, the joy of actually seeing a kid’s horizons broaden before my very eyes proved priceless indeed; guess there was something to those MasterCard ads from a few years back.

Now I know how flight attendants feel, I mused, as I savored a layover of some 24 hours in my hometown, Montreal. To say my circadian clock was a mess would be an understatement as I ignored jetlag as I labored to stay on Europe time. The pleasant sunny weather in Montreal — finally warming up after a long winter — felt more surreal and bright than welcomed. As evening approached, I returned to the airport and re-boarded that same British Airways flight for a hop back across the pond.

SchipolJetwayArriving at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport aroused a well of memories: while I lived in the Middle East as a boy my family flew KLM a lot, connecting through this major Western European gateway. My earliest memory of running to catch a connecting flight was here. Those large, modern walls of glass and round jetway windows brought it all back to me.

Amsterdam, meanwhile, retains that distinct mix of prim, flat-fronted canal buildings and carefree laissez-faire fun I remember from seven years back in my big world journey. I slept like a log the following two nights, the faint racket from bars downstairs from our accommodations — an attic apartment in a canal townhome — hardly fazing me. After getting back into the swing of remote work, I joined Mathew and Jasmin for a spin through the Red Light District. It remains an odd juxtaposition, historic churches and scantily-clad prostitutes and gawking tourists on narrow streets. But heck, it’s fun.

Smartshop3In spite of a Dutch shift toward conservatism a few years back and the banning of Magic Mushrooms not long after my visit in 2008, little has changed in the “soft drug” scene in Amsterdam from my memories. Efforts to restrict cannabis sales to locals fell flat, particularly in Amsterdam. And the Mushrooms ban extended only to a number of strains of the plant – a variant, magic truffles, remains legal. While there are said to be fewer Smartshops selling psilocybin products as there used to be in years past, we had no trouble spotting quite a number.

The coffeeshops, meanwhile, remain evergreen (pun intended) in the city, offering all manner of cannabis products for sale. Actually, judging how far things in the States have come, with five states legalizing the stuff and numerous others (including California) offering it medicinally with little fuss or muss, the Netherlands’ experiment feels at once trend-setting and prosaic.

MathewJasminAmsterdamBenchAlthough the Rijksmuseum has finally reopened after years of remodeling, Mathew and Jasmin were looking for a less daunting art appreciation experience on their last day in the city. So we went next door (wisely buying our tickets at the line-free kiosk a block away) to the Van Gogh Museum, where I got to once more appreciate the once-unappreciated tormented genius of this master painter.

We made our way back to the train station, bade Jasmin farewell, and looked for the NS International Lounge whose access came with our train tickets. Alas, we picked the wrong week: it was closed for remodeling, though the Starbucks next door offered similar high-vaulted ceilings and grand Victorian architecture. We boarded our high-speed Thalys train (successor to the old Trans Europ Express) and rolled out of Amsterdam in the late afternoon light.

MeMathewThalysUssieWhy do this overland? Well, a long time ago on a continent rather far away, my budget-minded and sun-starved Canadian family went on the mother of all road trips: we packed up our station wagon and drove from our home in Montreal all the way to my grandmother’s apartment in North Miami Beach. Although the allure of surface travel persists from those halcyon days, my one complaint with road trips is the need to drive oneself.

MathewThalysParisEurope offers a tantalizing way out of that conundrum: although the Continent is a lot smaller than North America, traveling from end to end is actually comparable in distance to that long-ago journey from Montreal to Miami – in our case, on this trip, from Amsterdam to Albufeira, Portugal. Thanks to high-speed rail, a journey like this can be accomplished in half the time as conventional driving – and all without the need to get behind the wheel.

We rocketed through the Netherlands and Belgium — last time I took this train these portions of the line hadn’t yet been upgraded to true high-speed — arriving some three hours later at Paris Gare du Nord. It was my third time transiting through this station in just over a week. Since it was late, we skipped urban rail and hopped in a cab to our cute little hotel right near Gare de Lyon. It was a mild Parisian evening, and the city bustled as we called it an early one in preparation for our big next day.

BarcelonaSantsSignTGVNext morning, a five minute walk toward the great clock of Gare de Lyon, then a climb onto the double-decker TGV Duplex for a lengthy yet speedy train ride across France. We left the plains of central France behind and slid through tunnels under the mountains of northern Spain to arrive at Barcelona Sants station in the early afternoon.

A bite of lunch, then back on another train – this one a Spanish high-speed AVE – to cross most of the Iberian peninsula toward our next stopover for the night. I have yet to visit Spain, but the views out the window of the Spanish countryside have only further whetted my appetite: verdant fields and glorious mountain vistas glowing in the late-afternoon sun.

Mathew, meanwhile, found the experience a bit more jarring: at Zaragoza a rather loud group of schoolkids filled up our mostly empty carriage; at our destination point for the night, Seville, our taxi driver sat lazily in his cab while we hauled out our baggage; at check-in at our hotel, front-desk staff chatted with their cohorts for a spell before getting us situated. All that efficiency we’d become accustomed to in Europe’s more northerly big cities was less apparent here.

DAMASBusNonetheless, things moved expediently: our hotel in Seville lay just across the street from our next transport terminal. Although we’d aimed at doing trains the whole way, realities made that challenging: Europe’s Iberian neighbors both have pretty sophisticated rail networks, but interconnections are still in progress: to date there’s no high-speed link between the two capitals, Lisbon and Madrid; nor are there any links between high-speed lines in Andalusia in southern Spain, and Algarve rail in southern Portugal. So we opted to make up the distance in a more prosaic fashion: a bus making the run out of Seville. As with the previous morning in Paris, we rose at the crack of dawn and boarded the conveyance. Morning light filtered into Seville’s historic center as we crossed the river and headed west toward our final destination.

Amsterdam_to_AlbufeiraI always have this fear, when taking buses in foreign countries, of what I call “chicken bus” syndrome: it’s based on that scene in Romancing the Stone, where Kathleen Turner gets on the wrong bus from the airport in Colombia and ends up on a rattletrap with luggage on the roof and peasants within, chickens in arm. Interestingly, none of my bus experiences in South America came close to this cliché. Here in Spain, however, our DAMAS bus (their version of Greyhound) was a bit less fab: so-so on cleanliness, and milk-run-level stop and go – including one unusual pull-over as we crossed into Portugal, where uniformed inspectors examined everyone’s passports.

“Ah. Now we will be delayed,” fumed an older gentleman seated in front of us as Portuguese officials grilled a couple of passengers. The EU has mostly made these border checks obsolete, but a few nations still keep them alive. The fellow chatting with us was a tour operator who hailed from Madrid, catching a train out of Faro. Happily, we were released soon after, and made up time as we rolled through the orchards and green hillscapes of the Algarve. A couple more stops, and we were at our destination for the next three weeks.

AlbufeiraBeachWe had traveled some 1,800 miles (about 1,300 as the passenger jet flies) from near Europe’s top to its bottom in about thirty hours (including two overnights)… all without leaving the ground.

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A Canadian Girl In Paris

April 15th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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LolaPlaceDuCanadaAs with my trip last year, Lola’s twelfth birthday present included a visit across the Channel. Lola and I began the journey between Western Europe’s two largest cities with the fastest, most comfortable way there is: by Eurostar. The speedy train rocketed us from London’s St. Pancras to Paris’s Gare du Nord smoothly and punctually. Emerging at street level from the Metro near our accommodations, Lola had the same reaction I did all those years ago on my big world trip:

“It’s so beautiful!

I firmly believe that, for maximum effect, one must not only travel by rail to Paris but also immediately submerge into the Metro and only emerge on some gorgeous Paris thoroughfare (read: most of them) and be appropriately wowed.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, perfect for an easing in to the city the best way a girl (and her gay uncle) know how: a bit of shopping.

We ambled over to the Champs Élysées, where Lola did her thing, finding trinkets and apparel enough to whet her appetites. I needed nothing as I came prepared for the weather: it was nice enough in London, to be sure, but it was absolutely magnificent on the Friday afternoon we arrived in Paris. We crossed the Seine as the sun was going down and geared up for fun times in this incredible city.

LouvreExtDetailNext morning dawned cloudy and cooler – a reminder it’s still early spring here in northern France. Nonetheless, we crossed the Jardins des Tuileries and stood in the moderate but not impossible line for security at the Louvre. To pass the time under the ominous skies, Lola recounted to me a couple of ghost stories she’d heard at summer camp; I myself have memories of hearing such tales as a lad, and remember them scaring me more than I let on.

The treasures inside blew the gloom away for a spell, however, as we took in the usual big stuff: the Mona Lisa (“it’s so small!” Lola remarked, a familiar refrain for first-time visitors to the art world’s supercelebrity); the Winged Victory of Samothrace (beautifully restored since my last visit); and the ever-armless Venus de Milo. Lola also took an interest in the archeological excavations of the original medieval Louvre castle that had bewitched her cousin (and me) on initial viewing.

It was chilly outside still, and a bit of a walk to our next attraction, so Lola pointed to a conveyance waiting on the street and asked, “can we take that?”

She was pointing at a bicycle rickshaw, one of many that can be found in tourist centers the world over. I normally shun such vehicles as they feel somewhat exploitative, but our driver seemed amiable and the price wasn’t too terrible, so why not? We headed across the Pont Neuf (Paris’s oldest standing bridge), then up to Île de la Cité for the Gothic monster at its center: Notre Dame cathedral.

LolaNotreDameThe line here was long as well, but it moved quickly and we were soon inside the cavernous structure. Lola found the stained glass windows remarkable (“I made one at camp!”, she remarked, though no doubt not quite as ornate), and did some more gift shop browsing. Afterward, we hopped over to the next island in the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, for its modern-day Parisian treasure: Berthillon ice cream at a café next to the fabled scoop shop.

It had begun to rain and, sadly, the weather change was playing havoc with my head. Call it the by-product of aging (and heredity), as over the past couple of years my occasional headaches have mutated into full-on migraine attacks. One was poking at the sidelines on this moody Saturday, but as we headed back through the rainy streets it got worse and worse. We went for a brief dinner nearby, but by that point my head was pounding like a jackhammer. We returned back to our hotel… to discover we’d left Lola’s bag back at the restaurant. We scurried back, amid her earnest apologies (no bother, really: it was minutes away, and heck, if I had a dime for every time I’d done that before).

LolaVersaillesHallMirrorsOn our return I switched off the lights and cradled my pounding head. After a short while I emerged… to find Lola herself quite perturbed. It was nothing more than a brief pang of homesickness (and her own fears from those ghost stories she recounted earlier); we talked through it all, and it actually turned out to be bit of a bonding moment for us both. We soon hit our respective pillows, slept soundly, and emerged rested (and migraine- and homesickness-free) the next morning.

Meanwhile, the sun and warmth had returned, so off we went to a suitably summery place: the warm-weather abode of King Louis XIV, just outside town, the Palace of Versailles.

The throngs had descended on the Grand Apartments, but that didn’t stop us from marveling at the over-the-top elegance of it all: King’s Bedchamber, Queen’s Bedchamber, Hall of Mirrors… Lola drank it all in.

VersaillesGardensFountains6But what really blew us both away were the gardens. Last time I was here was on my big world trip, on a moody October afternoon, and the gardens were lovely but muted, subdued. Now, in the April sunshine, with trees in bloom, the place came to life. Best part: musical accompaniment, featuring period-appropriate Baroque melodies, piped in throughout the gardens. Better yet: these melodies synchronized with the fountains that I’ve so longed to see switched on. Once more, Lola put it best, what with music, fountains and all, “it really sets the mood!”

BateauxMouchesSignDepartWe headed back on the RER commuter train, then continued our outdoor explorations: we boarded one of the Bateaux-Mouches for an hourlong tour of the city along the River Seine. The near-perfect weather, magical architecture, and clusters of people sitting along the city’s perfectly-sculpted riverbanks made for a most epic early-evening ride.

Next morning we rose early for a reprise of a military-style operation: a vertical assault on the hulking steel structure nearby, the Eiffel Tower.

EiffelTowerDetailSunWe arrived at the base about an hour before opening. Fortified with some take-away coffee and pastries, we encountered a line of barely a couple dozen people ahead of us — though not long after we showed up, the line quadrupled in length. Chatting amiably with a couple from Connecticut (and their baby boy) who were on assignment in Brussels, we watched the Tower staff open the place up for the day. At 9:30, the gates opened up, and we were in the first-level elevator minutes afterward.

We transferred to the smaller elevator at the core of the structure and rose smoothly to the top through the steel latticework. The view was even clearer than last year, and Lola gasped in awe as we beheld the broad blanket of Parisian avenues and mansard roofs stretching to the horizon. As I’d found with so many hugely popular attractions the world over, this one – if you time it right and minimize your wait – makes your effort eminently worthwhile.

LolaEiffelTowerTopLast year the first level of the Tower was being remodeled, and this go-round we were able to savor the fruits of this initiative: glass walls and floors offer a view of the serpentine lines below; a small theatre shows film of the tower through history, including those amazing fireworks they shot off for the Year 2000 celebrations. Realizing that these took place three years before my travel companion’s birth made me feel decidedly, uhm, chronologically enhanced.

From old landmark to new: we hopped on the Metro westward, just out of the city to the close-in suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, to visit a stunning new modern art museum designed by star architect Frank Gehry: the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

LouisVuittonMuseumDetail3Predictably, the building was Gehry’s usual eye-popping mix of glass, steel, and wood in curvilinear shapes. Somewhat less predictably, for us at least, was that the rest of the city’s museum-hungry visitors seem to have had the same idea: a long line wended its way through the park into the museum, many with white parasols to guard against the bright sun.

“If you go into the park and pay the admission for it, there’s no waiting!” explained a guard to us in French. Right he was: for three Euros a pop, we gained access into the Jardin d’Acclimatation, the gardens next to the museum that date back to Napoleon III, and discovered a couple of automated ticket machines for the museum with only a few people in line.

LouisVuittonMuseumArt2As one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Paris and its better-known attractions are no strangers to crowd control. Well, the same couldn’t be said of this fetching new museum, whose staffers seemed overwhelmed by the throngs. First they allowed small napsacks into the place; then they did not; then they prohibited smaller items from their cloackroom as it had gotten overfilled with bigger items. Stern guards stood surly watch over some rather testy patrons. I can only hope that, as the years go by and this facility becomes more ingrained into the Paris scene, it learns how to handle the mobs as well as its counterparts across town.

Fortunately, the exhibits themselves were beguiling: though we didn’t make the Orsay on this go-round, the Fondation offered up respectable surrogates: some Picasso, some Léger, some Matisse, some Monet, a bit of Giacometti… even one of Edvard Munch’s The Scream… about which Lola remarked:

LolaArcDeTriompheTelescope“Did you see the version of this one where it’s Batman and Robin behind the screaming man, and there’s a Bat symbol in the sky?”

As a child of a post-modern, high-culture/low culture generation myself, I can appreciate.

A nice bite of lunch at a nearby café, then off for a different perspective on the city: alighting back at the Champs-Elysées, we did a bit more shopping then strode to the Étoile for a spiral-staircase romp up the Arc de Triomphe. Here again, glorious views – and though not quite as high as its towering cousin nearby, the Arc offers one advantage: you can see the Eiffel Tower from it.

LesDeuxMagotsViewFor our final dinner in the city, we took a recommendation from Lola’s Mom and headed over to nearby Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the Deux Magots. It was the nicest evening of the trip so far as we took in the vista of St-Germain Square, with its shops, galleries, and medieval abbey. We chatted about life and family and cities and such, as people often do during that contemplative final evening of a big trip. Afterward, we strolled past the boutiques of St-Germain back toward our accommodations. As we reached the park of the Champ de Mars, we beheld the lit-up Eiffel Tower just as its twinkling light show was starting. I’d never seen the sparkle-fest up-close before; it bewitched and beguiled us both as we strode slowly away, back to our hotel, on our final night in this wondrous, magical City of Light.

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